Well, thank you very much, David Greig. Scarcely have I reviewed your recent London openings, Pyrenees and The Cosmonaut's Last Message, and explained how you work by oblique approaches and hints, before you unveil a play in Stratford that seems firmly located in the global war on terror.
Of course, things are far from that literal. On one level The American Pilot is about the clash of cultures between the United States and an unspecific mountainous Middle Eastern region (could be northern Iraq, could be most of Afghanistan; what matters are the perennial civil war and the antagonism). A farmer and his family, a local trader, the area's warlord and his more ideological lieutenant all have to negotiate a cultural-moral maze following the discovery of the crash-landed, injured airman of the title.
However, with Greig it's less a matter of A versus B than of the ways in which we articulate and/or interrogate our ideas. For much of the first half, characters all seem to be trying to formulate large concepts that their words cannot pin down: the Captain (David Rintoul), describing how they could not understand any intelligence data the Pilot might possess, says, "You may as well interrogate a word about the meaning of a sentence." Language itself is a main area of engagement: there's a lot of wry byplay about characters not understanding each other's tongues even though every word we hear is in fact English.
As the play progresses, however, these half-grasped abstracts – matters of philosophical faith, almost – are tested against pragmatic speculations, as the locals try to decide the best course of action: return the American, ransom him or kill him, and in each case, why? The particularities of the situation, having quickly given way to a broader conceptual level, then return afresh into detailed focus. And all the while, we're also being tested as to how well we allow these ideas through our ideological filters (Americans in such a context: good guys or bad guys?).
Ramin Gray's production hits the combination of detail and unfussiness exemplified by latter-day Peter Brook: actors sit upstage when not performing, occasionally adding musical accompaniment together with Ali Shahsavari on santur. It doesn't leave as much space for personal resonance as this unsettlingly prolific writer's more haunting works, but it's a more complex fable than at first appears.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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